WAKE FOREST, N.C. (ABP) — The International Mission Board should rid itself of “unbiblical” practices and alliances with Christian mission groups that do not enforce strict theological parameters, a Southern Baptist missions professor urges.
Keith Eitel, professor of Christian missions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., outlines his concerns about the theological framework employed by the mission board in an eight-page paper circulated by former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson.
For instance, Eitel alleges, because of inadequate theological training of some missionaries, “evangelism, church planting and discipleship are in the hands of theological novices.” And women are inappropriately placed in positions of authority over men, he says.
An IMB spokesperson called Eitel's criticisms “groundless accusations,” but nonetheless said the matter will be addressed by trustees next week.
The document, titled “Vision Assessment,” was sent to all IMB trustees by Patterson, Eitel's former boss at Southeastern and now president at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In a cover letter, Patterson called Eitel “one of the cutting-edge missiologists of our day.”
“Without a doubt, the keenest thinking in missiology occurs on the staff of the International Mission Board. However, some profitable thinking and planning is also done elsewhere,” Patterson wrote. “The critical importance of this paper, especially in light of the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, will be apparent to you as you read it.”
Eitel told a reporter he wrote the paper over the summer to summarize his perspective on the IMB's operation after being contacted by an IMB trustee who wanted to nominate him for a high-level position there. Avery Willis, senior vice president and second in command at the IMB, is scheduled to retire at the end of the year.
In the paper, Eitel appeals for IMB trustees to “synchronize” the mission board “with the theological convictions of the SBC” and to “set the board's course directly back into the evangelical roots that were the convictions of the founders of the convention.”
For this to happen, he wrote, biblical and theological inquiry must not be minimized in importance.
While criticizing previous administrations of the SBC mission board prior to the fundamentalist campaign that began in 1979, Eitel also raises concerns about the current administration of IMB President Jerry Rankin.
He especially targets the IMB's participation in mission efforts with what the board calls “Great Commission Christians” — other Baptist and Christian groups working toward the same missionary goals.
Eitel charges that these partnerships have “no mechanisms in place to filter or check the entry of unbiblical practices other than the specific theological preparation of the individual missionary.”
And that link has been weakened, he said, because under Rankin's leadership “there has been an obvious and apparently intentional move away from requiring seminary training for the key roles related to church planting and church development.”
Before the Rankin administration, such missionary candidates were required to have at least a master of divinity degree and two years of experience, he says. “Today, one may assume such roles with as little as 20-30 semester hours, and there is a spirit or culture within the board that downplays or undermines the need to even go to seminary at all.”
Eitel adds: “If it weren't for the trustees holding the line on this requirement, I am afraid that seminary requirements would be dropped completely.”
As a result of the change, he says, “I am concerned that evangelism, church planting and discipleship are in the hands of theological novices.”
The theology of IMB missionaries has been under much scrutiny recently. Earlier this year, all missionaries were required to sign an affirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message, which was revised in 2000 by the SBC's conservative leaders. As a result, at least 77 missionaries left the IMB, including 13 who were fired for refusing to sign. New questions about missionaries' qualifications to serve could spark more uncertainty among the IMB's 5,500-member mission force.
Eitel also criticizes the IMB for allowing women in leadership roles, specifically in the role of regional strategy coordinators.
“Women, while certainly capable in numerous ways to do ministry, should not be placed in doctrinal or ethical authority over men, and the strategy coordinator role often causes this to happen,” he writes.
These same strategy coordinators — although he does not single out women alone as the culprits — because they are “theological novices,” Eitel says, “frequently lead their teams to partner with theologically suspect organizations.”
The IMB's lack of stringency on theological and doctrinal training is a holdover from the previous administration of Keith Parks, Eitel charges. That's bad, he writes, because Parks made clear his belief that Southern Baptists should be united around mission more than theological conformity.
Parks, he says, inherited and built upon a slippery slope toward liberalism that began in the SBC after World War I. This trend, he charged, placed increasingly more emphasis on personal experience than on a strict understanding of the Bible's edicts.
“Parks was saying that doctrine or theology divides us but missions unites us,” Eitel noted. In contrast, leaders of the fundamentalist movement within the SBC like Adrian Rogers “indicated that unless our theological convictions are solidly established squarely on an inerrant Bible, we will have no legitimate or reasonable basis for doing missions.”
Eitel concludes his paper with nine recommended actions for IMB trustees, beginning with an appeal to “recruit administrators committed to theological renewal of the board.”
He also asks trustees to “change the appointment criteria and procedures to encourage theological preparation” and to “change the entire curriculum and teaching staff” at the Missionary Learning Center, where missionaries go for specific training after appointment.
Larry Cox, IMB vice president for mobilization, told Associated Baptist Press the agency is “very disappointed that Dr. Eitel chose to vent his groundless accusations against the International Mission Board in a public forum instead of communicating with our leadership.”
“Since the distribution of Dr. Eitel's paper to our trustees in September, Dr. Rankin has sent Dr. Eitel a written response, and he has been in communication with Dr. Eitel to arrange for a meeting to try to resolve the misunderstandings in the paper,” Cox said in the written statement. “This matter will be discussed with IMB trustees during their meeting in Lexington, Ky., next week.”